Gibara happened by sheer chance and it turned out to be one of Cuba’s best-kept secrets. I left Trinidad gladly and was on my way down south towards Guantanamo when Pancho’s wily charms had seduced me. A very famous donkey, Pancho was a celebrity in his own right who shot to fame because of his beer drinking capacity. He lived at resort Mirador de Mayabe in the outskirts of Holguin city and I badly wanted to buy him a beer. Although my original destination was Guantanamo, the lack of direct bus connectivity made me stop over at Holguin. It cost me approximately 26 Cuc and 8 hours of a picturesque bus ride through southern Cuba’s lush countryside to reach Holguin. The Cuban countryside was very pretty with mango orchards, flowers, and lush greenery and Holguin’s misty cool weather was a refreshing break.
Holguin turned out to be the base for exploring Gibara
The city, which was Cuba’s fourth largest was in the province with the same name and it was famous for soft hilly landscape. Often compared with women’s breasts by the locals, Holguin’s hills appeared misty green and groves of pine forests and orchids dotted the meadows. It looked like a pretty awesome place to take a breather before venturing into the Moa-Baracoa Highway, the wildest road in Cuba. I reached Holguin sometime around early evening and took a room in a casa on the outskirts of the industrial city. For 10 Cuc per day, it was clean, spacious, and included breakfast. The host Danny was a friendly guy who bombarded me with nearby places of interest. Evidently proud of his off the tourist trail province of Holguin, it was upon his insistence that I got on a shared taxi to Gibara.
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Is Gibara, Cuba’s best-kept secret?
The taxi was a grand old beauty and for 4 CUC return fare, I had an awesome ride to Gibara. Famous for the “poor man’s film festival”, Festival Internacional del Cine Pobre, every year Gibara drew a global crowd in hordes. Its much-faded beauty also was also of substantial fame and it had the reputation of being one of the most beautiful ghost towns in the world. I fell in love with Gibara at first sight and was completely taken in by the empty town’s strong character. A strange haunting beauty pervaded it like a nostalgic childhood memory and Gibara touched my heartstrings. Its old buildings with their larger than life-sized peeling wooden shutters, stained glass windows and fading pastel coloured walls were picturesquely desolate.
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An enchanting mix of melancholy and astonishing timelessness
Gibara was damaged twice by hurricane Ike in 2008 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and they pretty much flattened it like a pancake. The damage was slowly getting restored at the time of my visit and Gibara had a photogenic run-down look. It was the enchanting combination of its melancholy aura against an absurdly cheerful sky, which made Gibara look amazingly vivid in photos. Filled with crumbling Spanish colonial ruins, complete with peeling paints, creaking wooden shutters, and colonnaded porticoes, even the residents of Gibara seemed to be from another era. The friendly faces though, curious bore the look of a long wait and their houses too reflected the same character. Old Soviet knickknacks, Che posters, dusty old china, and grandfather clocks were crammed inside the cavernous rooms and forgotten, leathered faces with vacant patient eyes stared out from them. Cut off from the rest of the world and most of Cuba, they rocked on their chairs reading books, mending fishing nets, gossiping, and playing saxophones to their pet dogs.
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Gibara is cinematic, magical, and extremely photogenic
Big African oak trees shaded Gibara like shadowy ghosts and the sky was a hodgepodge of fluffy white and dark grey cloud piles. They cast a subtle light in which the old buildings’ pastel colors had glowed. Jewel-coloured Bantam roosters strutted along the photogenic sea walls and the waves of the swollen ocean thundered against the promenade violently. A huge concrete statue of a Merlin had marked the town’s only public park and shirtless boys played football at graffiti etched abandoned building lots. The whole effect was cinematic, magical, and absolutely befitting of a place which hosted the world-famous film festival, Cine Pobre.
Gibara will always possess a part of my heart
I spent an entire rainy afternoon at Gibara and did not even realize how the time flew. A dull sunset heralded my time to head towards Holguin and I took in the animated scenes of the lovely ghost town of Gibara while waiting for a taxi under the brilliant hibiscus blossoms. Gibara evening air rung with ghost town gossip and ladies in bathrobes and nylon hair curlers laughed with men smoking giant Cuban cigars. Domino games were in full swing and coiling fragrance of the cigar smoke mingled headily with the coastal saltiness. Strains of music filled the air as the musician continued playing saxophone to his dog. It is strange how some places, in spite of having nothing spectacular to offer, just tug your heartstrings. Leaving them are the hardest and they always possess a part of our soul. The Cuban ghost town still possesses a tiny bit of my soul and I thanked my luck for the wonderful discovery of Gibara.
Holguin and Gibara Travel Tips
Keep the visit to Pancho, the beer drinking donkey optional
Holguin though an incredibly pretty province, does not see many tourists. Casas are easy to find and bargaining is a way of life. Most come with sumptuous breakfasts and make great bases to explore the region. Mirador de Mayabe is not easy to reach and Pancho’s presence is erratic. Gibara is absolutely worth visiting and it is possible to stay there. Holguin has some of Cuba’s most beautiful beaches and fishermen shuttle tourists to the Playa Blanca on sunny days. Los Hermanos, although much touted by guidebooks is quite avoidable.
Gibara ghost town, beaches, caves, and forests
The area apart from Gibara has much to offer and it is possible to search for wildlife in valleys and cave-filled limestone hills or go diving in the magical Tanque Azul de Caletones. A flooded cavern on the region’s most important migratory bird route, Tanque Azul de Caletones is worth a day trip and the beautiful beach of Playa de Caletones is very exciting. The wild-west-style village located 17 kilometers west of town, serves awesome seafood lunches at La Esperanza. Ernesto Blanco and Arturo Rojas are the best people to explore the region with. It is possible to book the services of the Holguin arts professor and the president of the Cuban cave diving association through esenciaexperiences.com.
The famous lively festivals
Cine Pobre or the Poor Man’s Film Festival is the most important event of Gibara and it is held every year in April. Shortly after Cine Pobre, in May the Romerias de Mayo takes place in Holguin. An eclectic arts festival it is led by Hermanos Saíz Association, a group of young Cuban artists that celebrates the work of local musicians, actors, artists, writers, and dancers.
Check out the photo series of the enchanting melancholic ghost town of Gibara
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